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Unexpected Airline Fees: How Families Can Avoid Excessive Charges

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If you travel even only occasionally these days, you are probably already aware that most airlines now charge fees for checked bags. Perhaps you’ve already heard about the increase in airline change fees the past few months. Both of these are fees that can really disproportionately affect families, since families have so many more people traveling together.

But there are other fees out there that some airlines charge that may take you by surprise on your next family trip. Since families often have very particular needs when traveling with kids, they often get hit very hard by these charges. Here’s a list of some less common fees that could drive the cost of your airline ticket up. Be prepared and avoid them at all costs!

Airline Fees To Watch For Before Your Next Flight

Carry On Bag Fees

Unexpected Airline Fees - Carryon Bags

Southwest doesn’t charge carry on bag fees, but some low cost carriers do. See all the other Southwest Airlines freebies that can help you save.

The major domestic airlines still do not charge for passengers to bring carry-luggage, but some of the ultra-low cost carriers are going this route. Passengers who fly Frontier recently found that the airline would begin charging for carry ons in the overhead bin for passengers who do not book on (the space underneath your seat is still free). Fees can run as high as $100.

Spirit Airlines has been charging for carry ons larger than a purse or briefcase for quite some time. Fees are variable, depending on when you pay for the item and where you are flying. Check Spirit’s website for precise baggage rates and dimension rules.

Another low cost-carrier, Allegiant, also charges for a carry-on bag of up to 25 pounds (one personal item of smaller dimensions is still free). Fees for a carry-on are $18-$50, depending on trip length and whether they are booked in advance or at the airport.

Seat Assignment Fees

Unexpected Airline Fees - Seat Assignments

Want this kind of seat assignment? Many airlines will make you pay a pretty penny.

Airlines have been charging for premium seats for many years (United’s Economy Plus and Delta’s Economy Comfort being prime examples), but some airlines charge you just for the privilege of having an advance seat assignment of any kind. If you want to guarantee that you and your child can sit together, you may have to pony up some extra cash when you book.

Frontier Airlines, for example, no longer includes seat assignments of any sort in their fares. Instead, you have to pay extra the time of booking or just take what you are given at the time of flying. Frontier even warns that “your party may be separated.” (See Frontier’s seat assignment policies.)

More insidious than the discount carrier fees, however, are the ways in which the majors try to force you into buying premium seats in order to secure seats with your child. More and more airlines are blocking off even the regular window and aisle seats, leaving only scattered middle seats available for pre-assignment. Many families who want to get a row together instead opt to purchase premium seats in order to guarantee that everyone can sit together, even though the plane – in reality – may be almost totally empty when they are booking and examining seat maps.

There’s no right way to handle this dilemma, but see my posts on my own personal experience with AmericanDelta, and United. I try to get at least two seats together (usually near the back of the plane where there may be some availability) and keep monitoring my reservations for switches. Sometimes calling and finding a sympathetic agent will help. Always be sure to check in at exactly 24 hours before your flight. This is when some elite upgrades will clear, opening up some extra seats in the economy cabin that you may be able to snag.

Phone Booking Fees

This fee has been in place for many years, but it still takes infrequent travelers by surprise. If you want to book a ticket over the phone with a call center agent, most major airlines will charge you $25 for that privilege. You can easily avoid this fee by booking online at the airline’s website. If a ticket simply cannot be booked online due to technical limitations of the airline’s website, ask the call center agent to wait the phone fee.

Lap Child Fees (for International Tickets)

Infants in laps can be costly for international travel.

Infants in laps can be costly for international travel.

Many parents enjoy traveling during the first two years of their child’s life because infants under age 2 can travel on their parents’ laps at no charge on all domestic flights. But if you book your next vacation to an international destination, you may be taken by surprise as lap infants have to pay a fee for travel (often 10% of a regular fare).

If you redeem award miles for a business or first class ticket to secure extra space for you and your infant, you may be in for an especially unpleasant surprise — you could perhaps be charged 10% of the FULL cost of that business/first class seat for the privilege of taking your child along. Since many of these seats retail for thousands and thousands of dollars, you could easily be hit with a three, or even four, figure bill.

There are major differences in the airlines, so plan carefully. The Points Guy has published a great chart that may help you in distinguishing between all the fees for lap infants on various international flights.

Priority Boarding

Unexpected Airline Fees - Kids Boarding Plane

Kids board early on some airlines, but other airlines charge everyone for the early boarding privilege.

Elites have long gotten priority boarding privileges, and for many years, families with small children could count on pre-boarding to have a little extra time to get their children and all their gear settled. Pre-boarding for kids is a thing of the past on many carriers. If pre-boarding really matters to you, you may have to pay for the privilege. Plus, the boarding process is an ever changing target on many airlines so what worked a year ago may no longer be the policy today.

Here are a few of the options out there for pre-boarding as of spring 2017.

  • American: Currently offers Priority boarding as an option that can be purchased a la carte.
  • Southwest: Charges $15 each way for passengers who want “Early Bird Check-In” (up from $12.50) Depending on how many other passengers select this option, it usually enables you to get a boarding position near the end of the A boarding group, which enables you to get on board early and secure a good seat and space for your carryon luggage. There is really no need to pay this fee on Southwest if you are traveling with kids 6 and under. Southwest will let you board between Groups A & B, which works just right to secure a full row of three seats across (albeit in the back of the plane).
  • United: Offers Premier Access, which starts $15 and is segment-based.

Close-In Award Booking Fees

Been saving those frequent flyer miles for a rainy day?  Often travelers find that they want to cash them in for a last minute vacation or even for a family emergency — like an illness or a funeral. Booking last minute, however, can come with costs.

American, for example, charges $75 for AAdvantage award tickets issued less than 21 days before travel (fee is waived for Gold, Platinum, and Executive Platinum members).

United also charges regular Mileage Plus members $75 for award tickets booked less than 21 days before travel (elites holding Silver status pay $50, Gold members pay $25, and higher elites pay no fees).

Luckily, Delta does not charge these close-in award booking fees. And Southwest never charges fees for last minute awards, making them one of my family’s favorites for air travel with kids.

Are there other airline fees out there that have taken you by surprise?  Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Last Updated: March 21, 2017

Airline a la carte fees are increasing. It's not just checked bags anymore! Find out what new fees you should watch out for before your next flight.

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Andrea, Passports And Pushchairs

Tuesday 2nd of July 2013

I have to say that we always have pretty good luck with Delta. Their planes aren't always the best but they do seem to be pretty family friendly and helpful, so I will take an old plane for a better experience :)